Our survey of God’s self-revelation to Israel – inadequate as it has been – must come to an end. What impressions remain? What was the devout Israelite’s knowledge of his God?
Above all things God was a reality, not just an idea or principle, nor some kind of mysterious essence. But He was also a personality, manifesting individual character, not just a perfection of abstract qualities of holiness, mercy and love. The qualities of God were shown in His particular manifestation of them, especially in relation to His people, for the Israelite had to learn that his God was one who reacted to human actions in a complex way; a God who rejoiced over the humble obedience of His servants, was grieved at their disobedience, and even moved to anger over prolonged and deliberate sin, after their rejection of His earnest efforts to save them. In these reactions Yahweh, so different in this from the capricious gods of Canaan, was utterly consistent, unchanging and predictable.
Sovereign Over All
He was also utterly sovereign over all creation, for Yahweh alone was God and the rest were idols; He alone had created the heavens and the earth and all mankind, for He was “the God of the spirits of all flesh” and in His hand was “the soul of every living thing and the breath of all mankind”. He had impressed His people with a sense of His majesty in the manifestations of His power in Egypt and at Sinai, and with His holiness when, after judging transgressors, He declared: “I will be sanctified in them that draw nigh unto me.” So the Israelite whose mind was rightly exercised by these things had a profound sense of reverence of God; the fear of the Lord was the basis of his approach: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
But the God of majesty and holiness was also a God of infinite goodness and mercy, who in all His ways sought only what was for man’s ultimate good and made it clear that He was ever ready to receive man into fellowship with Himself, to share ultimately with him His own nature. So Yahweh was a God who acted among His people, to redeem them from bondage, to bring pressures to bear upon them when they went astray in an effort to reform them by tribulation, because his aim was, as Moses assured them, “to do thee good at thy latter end”. So to Israel God was not remote, otherworldly, but influencing events in their lives, and near, especially to those who were His.
Fellowship with God
And how was the Israelite to attain to this knowledge of God? By diligent attention to the revelation which God gave of Himself, through His actions and particularly, since actions need explanation, through His comment upon them, first through the mouth of His chosen servants and later through the record which remained of their words; and so the word of the Lord became the ultimate source of knowledge and the Law was given, not however merely as a collection of statutes and judgments, a legal demand, but as a body of instruction and correction, aiming to give the Israelite a practical basis for his daily life but also an understanding of the spirit in which it should be lived. Thus he is required to make an earnest effort to apply his knowledge of his God in his own experience; it becomes a knowledge to be lived, not merely in his religious exercises but in his common life with his fellows, in his mercy for the poor, the fatherless and the stranger, for by this means he will enter into fellowship with God. The psalmist’s prayer, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes”, becomes “give me understanding” and “quicken me in thy ways” (Psa 119:33–37).
Oneness of Morality and Religion
So ideas of right and wrong, moral standards, did not arise from human sources and were not humanitarian or social in their aim; they were derived from the explicit commands of God who first redeemed His people and them impressed upon them the need to acknowledge this redemption in their attitude to one another; in short, Israel’s moral standards were religious in character. It is natural to find therefore that God gives them no encouragement to attempt to separate their moral duties of love to one another from their duties of worship to Himself: the services of the tabernacle were to be carried out, the offerings were to be brought; and what is more, the promises were to be believed. All the words of God were to be accepted, whether they required acts of devout worship, right conduct to one’s fellows, or faith in what was yet to be.
The Reality of Sin
But Israel as a nation failed to accomplish God’s purpose with them in His revelation of Himself: they forgot the redemption, abandoned His ways and followed their own, as great characters in Scripture like Daniel periodically fully confess. So in the remnant still faithful in spirit there was developed through the knowledge of God’s revelation of Himself and through their own experience of their weakness a knowledge of themselves: they were more conscious of the reality of sin. All their God-given ordinances had proclaimed it and now all their experience confirmed it. “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days … that I may know how frail I am … Deliver me from all my transgressions … So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom …” (Psa 39:4, 8; 90:12).
In their helplessness in sin they were comforted by the revelation of God’s abundant mercy: His pity for His people in bondage, His tireless efforts to recover them when they went astray, His attitude of compassion expressed in language of great tenderness freely compared by Himself to the feelings of a mother for her child or of a father for his son: “… Is Ephraim my dear son? … I do earnestly remember him still … my bowels are troubled for him …” (Jer 31:18–20).
So, conscious of his own transgressions, yet comforted in the assurance of the abundant mercy of God, the devout Israelite casts his burden on the Lord, trusts in Him and waits for Him, and attains at last a sense of peace: “Great peace have they that love thy law, and nothing shall offend them… Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee” (Psa 119:5; Isa 26:3). It would appear sometimes these days that we need reminding that these are Old Testament quotations expressing a very real sense of fellowship with God.
Surely it is impossible to survey this revelation by God of Himself to His people and the response which that revelation demanded of them without being impressed with the fact that the religion of Israel was intensely spiritual in character and in aims. Here is no mere governing of a people by a severe code of laws but the training of their hearts and minds so that they might enter into fellowship with their God; so that they might learn first that man does not live by bread alone but by every word from God. How well the great characters learned this is shown in the long devotion of Moses, the final humility of David, the firm faith of Isaiah, and the humble resolution of Daniel. In the overall picture of corruption presented by the later histories and prophets it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there must have been many in Israel, humble in character and social station, whose names never got into the record but in whom the knowledge of God was at work achieving its transformation of mind and spirit. “They that feared the Lord spake often one to another …” Surely in all ages of Israel’s occupation of the land there must have been many such, though outnumbered and dominated by the heedless mass. They were the true remnant; it is by them that the religion of Israel in its spiritual intention, and indeed achievement, ought to be judged.
The Sons of God
And now, what of ourselves?
Surely all this experience must apply to us too? The God of Israel and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ are one and the same, unique in majesty, holiness, and abundant mercy. We too are called as servants to become no less than sons, reflecting in our lives the Father who has begotten us. We are redeemed by the same God and our redemption, from sin as Israel’s was from Egypt, requires of us a like reaction to theirs. Our love to our fellows must no more be humanitarian in origin than theirs was, but be founded upon a deep sense of that which God has done for us in Christ: “Be ye kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, even as God also in Christ forgave you. Be ye therefore imitators of God (that is, particularly in this respect) as dear children, and walk in love even as Christ loved you …” (Eph 4:32–5:1). Conscious of sin and of the need of redemption, as Israel were meant to be, we too need to learn, especially in these days of material prosperity, that we live not by our own imaginings but by the words of God. For us too those words are supreme in their authority.
Manifest in Christ
But we have the supreme privilege of having the manifestation of the knowledge of God not just in the words of a prophet or in an isolated act but in a man, Jesus the Son of God. He was “God manifest in the flesh”; he was on the one hand a Son under authority, and gladly accepting it, and on the other a Son given full authority to speak and act for the Father. He seems the perfect representative of the “godly” man (chasid) of the Old Testament. He accepts the revelation of God in the law and the prophets, is conscious of the sin present in human experience, and yields himself to the Father’s will, even on the cross. Yet in all his sense of intimate fellowship with the Father, Jesus never lost that sense of God’s supremacy and of the reverent worship due to Him, and never ceased to give all glory to Him. “I can of mine own self do nothing … Why callest thou me good? There is one good, that is God.” He was a righteous one (tsadiq), yielding complete obedience to the will of the Father and so was received into fellowship with Him. He was one of the poor and meek, demanding nothing for himself and not refusing the giving even of his own life because he knew that his sacrifice was the expression of the will of the Father that men should be saved, a will which he made his own. Having thus “learned obedience by the things which he suffered”, he is able to offer peace to those who will walk in his steps: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Come learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls.”
This revelation of the mind of God in His Son coupled with the experience of that Son in accomplishing the will of the Father in human flesh is surely what Jesus meant in saying: “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” Must it not have been also in the thought of the apostle Paul when he urged the Ephesians to come to “the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (4:13)?
We who seek to be servants of God in this twentieth century tread substantially the same spiritual way as the faithful Israelites of old and as the early followers of Christ and the apostles in the first century. Like them we accept the word of God as supreme, submitting to it, allowing ourselves to be instructed and corrected by it. In this we are no innovators, for the way has already been shown us in the faith of the remnant of Israel and the early disciples. How much more difficult would have been their task of understanding the revelation of God without the abundant writings of the Old Testament? How much less complete would ours be without the comments of Jesus and of the apostles on the Old Testament? Our privilege is that we have the full revelation both of the Old and the New, forming substantially one whole, with foundation principles consistent throughout. The experience of the earnest Israelite in seeking to serve God was in essence much the same as our own, and thus the “things which were written aforetime” can truly serve as examples and were indeed written for our learning with the aim that we also should learn not to “lust after evil things”, but rather to “be filled with the knowledge of (God’s) will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”, and so to “increase in the knowledge of God, strengthened with all power according to the might of his glory”(Col 1:10–11). And as we bow our heads in reverent worship, we are reminded of the thought of Jude the apostle who thus expresses the spirit both of the Old Testament and of the New: “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory, with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, now and for ever. Amen.”
1 Originally published as, The Knowledge of God, A Study in Old Testament Foundations and their Significance For Us, Part 9 Ourselves and the Knowledge of God, e Christadelphian: Volume 104. pp495–498. Birmingham: CMPA